Editor's note: Action Line is a weekly column from the Better Business Bureau answering consumers' questions and concerns about money and business issues.

Dear Action Line:

It recently came to my attention that my mom has been carelessly throwing her old bills and important paperwork into her trash bins. I know for a fact that "recyclers" come through her neighborhood gathering recycling from those same bins. I'm very concerned about her risk of identity theft. I've gotten her to stop doing this but how can we help avoid the risks in the future?

Dear Reader:

I have heard many stories of people throwing sensitive documents in the trash thinking no one would dig through their old coffee grinds and discarded waste. But that is very untrue. Identity thieves will stop at nothing to get what they want. Being a victim of identity theft can have large financial consequences. It is extremely important to try to deter identity theft from happening, quickly spot it if it has happened, and take the appropriate steps to defend yourself.

Identity thieves are relentless in their pursuit of private information. It is very important to be aware of all the different ways to defend yourself and to keep your identity safe. It is always easier to avoid a problem rather than fix it once it occurs.

The BBB offers the following tips to keep your identity secure:

* Carry only the cards you need at the time. Minimize the identification information and the number of cards you carry in your wallet or purse. Do not carry your Social Security card unless you absolutely need it. The same goes for your credit cards. If you aren't going to use them that particular day, leave them at home.

* Cut up old or expired credit cards. Be aware of inactive credit card and bank accounts. Check them periodically for suspicious activity and always cut your old cards up leaving no opportunity for someone to get ahold of them and reactive them under your name.

* Choose your PIN wisely. For your ATM card, choose a Personal Identification Number different from your address, telephone number, middle name, the last four digits of your Social Security number, your birth date or any other information that could be easily discovered by thieves. Pick something completely random that wouldn't be easily detected.

* Social Security number: Be careful about sharing your SSN. Ask why your number is needed, how it will be used and what will happen if you refuse. Do not carry your Social Security card with you on a daily basis. Leave it at home in a secure location. Do not waver on this.

* Mailbox: Place outgoing mail in a secure mailbox. If you do not have a locked mailbox, pick up incoming mail as soon as possible. It's not recommended that you leave your outgoing mail in a visible location. If needed, take it directly to the post office or deposit it in a secure mailbox.

* Storage: Never store your private documents in unsecured locations such as your car or office. At home, invest in a fireproof lock box or safe to store important documents.

* Receipts and bank statements: Monitor bank and credit card statements for fraudulent activity. Know what dates your bills arrive. Late or missing bills can indicate your information has been compromised.

* If you must carry your cards, make copies of the front and back of all important cards you'd keep in your wallet. Should you fall victim to theft or lose your wallet, you'll have copies of all the important numbers to call to immediately report them stolen or lost.

Most of us do not know our credit card numbers or reporting phone numbers by memory. If theft occurs after business hours, this gives you the advantage of calling and reporting immediately rather than waiting until the next business day.

* Shred documents: Avoid storing documents you no longer need that contain personal information including: credit card applications, insurance forms, financial statements, health forms and other billing statements. Shred all unnecessary documents that contain personal information; garbage cans are goldmines for identity thieves. Your BBB offers 10 shred events each year at little to no cost. You can find these dates and locations by visiting www.cencal.bbb.org/shred/

* Credit report: Check your credit report annually. Under the Fair & Accurate Credit Transaction Act, consumers are entitled to a free annual credit report. The only authorized source is AnnualCreditReport.com 1-877-322-8228.

-- Joey Fernandez is assistant director of business services for the Better Business Bureau serving Central California. Send your consumer concerns, questions and problems to Action Line at the Better Business Bureau, 1601 H St., Suite 101, Bakersfield, CA 93301 or joey@cencal.bbb.org. These are her opinions, not necessarily those of The Californian.